Monday, June 01, 2009

Discussions With Progressives

Neo-neocon has a wonderful series about how conservatives should seek to persuade progressives. The first post takes as its starting point a comment by Oblio which includes, in part
...2. When someone offers a bumper-sticker sentiment as a deep thought on some issue of the day, ask “Do you study that closely?” in a mild manner. Most often, there will be stunned silence followed by a hasty change of topic.
3. If someone wants to rant on after #2, just keep asking questions about where they get their information, their views of the implications of their position, how they do the cost/benefit analysis, their response to some authority’s (particularly some liberal authority’s) criticism of their position, etc. Force them to clarify their points. In most cases they start embarrassing themselves within about 45 seconds. Very few come back for this treatment twice.
The ensuing conversation at the site, including especially some suggestions by Occam's Beard (a wonderful online name), is valuable.

Notice that both Oblio and Occam's Beard have stepped away from much confrontation and arguing, back into the teaching of logical discourse itself. What constitutes evidence? How is disagreement handled among rational people? What are the elements of a carefully considered opinion? What is polite? As OB is a science or engineering prof at some Ivy League school, I take his advice on How To Talk To A Liberal more seriously than I would Ann Coulter.

I often avoid confrontative political, religious, and social arguments in live conversation, a fact which may strike those who know me only me as AVI as odd. But I don't like to pick on fragile people, or kick folks when they are down, or duel with the unarmed. Well, not as much as online, that is. I do have a reputation for stirring things up at Bible study and adult Sunday school. But those are mostly people who are not unarmed. When we have had visitors, younger people, or earnest but not-very-thoughtful people, I am usually fairly mild. I will often even defend them against more forceful speakers.

On the internet, no one knows you're a dog, or if you're a tender plant, either. If you come aggressively, I am going to assume you know what you're getting into. If I heard you live I might not think so. The social cues and insecurities I pick up on might tell me you're pretty marginal emotionally, or outgunned intellectually, and I might back off.

And progressives, I find, are pretty easily wounded people. Not all, by any stretch. But those where I work pretty clearly use political comments as icebreakers and sign/countersigns in conversation. The cynical humor attempts to create an impression of what sort of clever person they are. It's like birds chirping out their location or ants releasing pheromones. The comments are not usually all that connected to the topic at hand, just reflexive in-group statements delivered when chance phrases come up. Even the mildest challenges at these times strikes them as amazingly rude. They were just saying, you know, that Dan Quayle once said he had to brush up on his Latin before going to Latin America. The fact that he never said that is just irrelevant to this nice conversation they were having before I came and left a turd in the punchbowl.

Neo links to a similar article from American Thinker by Bookworm.

Completing the series, she links to the struggles of Robin of Berkeley trying to find conservative friends in that true-blue area, and the recent defection of Spiegel editor Jan Fleischhauer from liberalism. Fleischhauer makes observations about the circles he moved in until quite recently that will seem awfully familiar to readers here.
I would hazard to guess that many are to the left because others are.

Man’s tendency to assimilate, though well-documented in experimental psychology, is a trait routinely underestimated in everyday life. What we call conviction is often nothing but adaptation in an environment of opinions…No one wants to be the only person in an office who isn’t asked to join the group for lunch.
I know, I know, that's four articles, plus neo's surrounding commentary, but it's all worth it.


@nooil4pacifists said...

Very interesting post. And the Fleischhauer piece is particularly good.

Anonymous said...

I'll have to look again at Neo's posts and some of the other things you link to. I was very concerned about this matter four years ago when I had a friendship that was doomed because my "progressive" friend who fancied himself a great communicator was unable to discuss anything controversial in much depth, but he was at least a vast improvement over his friends, who were the sort of stereotypical closed-minded leftists whose reactionary politics as made me flee in the opposite direction.

Since that time, I rarely discuss politics with anyone who doesn't mostly agree with me, and when I have to touch on controversial issues on committee meetings and such things, I am very careful to couch conservative positions in liberal terms so as not to set off too many alarms.

But I still find it amusing that most leftists are so paranoid about their views that you can't even point out contradictory facts om the most non-confrontational manner without them getting defensive and assuming the worst about you.

Stella said...

This was an interesting read, with a lot of good links.

If engaged in some kind of casual conversation with someone not terribly important to me, I've wondered what the reaction would be if I just let loose with gung-ho... liberalspeak. My hairdresser decorating her salon for Inauguration day (putting out a bush, haha, saying "well at least we have someone smart in the White House.) What if I had said, loudly, "Oh yes! What an idiot Bush is. He's Hitler! He should die. Obama is like Jesus! Better! I know you feel like I do, I can tell. You're just like me."

Anyone ever try that approach?

copithorne said...

When you go through these links the remarkable thing is that you cannot find any policy differences that are described by the conservative authors in their conversations with progressive interlocutors.

From the outside it seems as though contemporary conservatism has ceased to be a philosophy of public policy and has beome entirely about a sense of tribal victimization.

A few weeks ago we had a conversation about deficit spending. I asked again and again for AVI and the community here to share their thoughts about what they would do to cut the deficit. It was impossible to get a single proposal out of the crew here.

At that time, I held out hope that President Obama’s invitation to the Eric Holder and Republican caucus to identify spending cuts might be an opportunity for the Republican party to come forward with constructive proposals. Well the results came in today. $23 billion over five years. In other words, nothing.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

For the record: 5 weeks ago we had what may loosely be called a conversation about deficit spending here. The primary topic was the increased amount of projected deficit under Obama. Copithorne's main point at the time was that the first, and worst year on the Obama graph, was actually Bush's. Anything less than 100% agreement with that point he refused to accept. Copithorne's second point was that it was Bush and the Republicans who had gotten us into this mess anyway. Anything less than 100% agreement with that point he refused to accept.

Later in the conversation, Copithorne did indeed raise the point he mentioned. It is true that no one responded. Go figure.

As to the linked articles, none of them had the intent of outlining policy differences. All were addressing either the general phenomenon of persuasion, with specific regard to liberals, or the ubiquity of liberal opinion in certain sectors of the culture, and the difficulties attendant with that.

On Neo's current front page she discusses deregulation, nuclear development in Iran, voter ID, and affirmative action, among other things. At American Thinker's front page there are several articles on the Mideast, affirmative action, trade with Cuba, Obama leaving parts out of his Koran quote, the soda tax, federal court nominees, Tarp, and health reform.

I think that is an adequate amount of addressing substantive differences, allowing for occasional general articles about the psychology of the culture war.

So, reader, you choose.

@nooil4pacifists said...

Copithorne asserts his wishes while avoiding the evidence. He's welcome to surf to NOfP and attempt to refute this guarantee:

(public policy proposals) - (tribal victimizations) = (large positive integer)

Buz said...

Odd ... isn't that what you said in your original post about certain people just wanting to state their opinions and not really wanting to hang around to discuss facts?


copithorne said...

You know, I did go to no oil for pacifists. And much much higher than I see anywhere else, I do perceive an effort to talk in terms of public policies. The complaint to proposal ratio is pretty high and I agree with little of it. But I at least recognize someone as trying to talk in terms of public policy and attempting to marshall fragments of reasoned argument.

In terms of neo neocon, a proposal does not look like making offhand comments of victimization. I am very much interested in what the obstacle is to the development of nuclear power in this country and how to remove that obstacle. My current understanding is that the obstacle is economic. I ask around and I haven’t gotten a clear picture of what a pro nuclear power political platform would entail. I don’t perceive Barack Obama as opposed to nuclear power.

I don’t share her projections about Michelle Obama nor am I aware of what current controversy about affirmative action neo -neocon intends to address. There isn’t much government affirmative action these days. I haven’t heard of any proposals for regulating the admissions policies of private universities.

Obviously there is a long history of tests and poll taxes as obstacles to voting in Georgia. I understand she may regret that these practices were found unconstitutional last century but that is settled law and not really a matter of public controversy. Sarcastic complaints don’t help illuminate things.

Mostly, it seems like everyone has a role that suits them. Democrats will lead. Republicans will complain. It seems like all that energy would be better spent rooting for the Red Sox and hating the Yankees and that activity would provide the same consolations.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

So you're wrong but you're still right, because the posts you read didn't discuss the specifics you were interested in. Great.

copithorne said...

To me, the difference between complaining and proposing policies is pretty obvious, yes.

As I said, we'll do the work of proposing policies and you'll do the work of complaining and everybody will get the role that suits them.

The fascinating question for me is why does the vocabulary of politics remain compelling for people who are not interested in public policy?

copithorne said...

I had another thought about how I can explain my point of view.

For me the main currency of a constructive political conversation is: goverment policy is X. Goverment policy should be Y.

For neo-neocon's concerns about affirmative action I really doubt you will be able to solve for X and Y. The admissions policies of Yale and Princeton don't have anything to do with the government.

For neo-neocon's concerns about IDs for voting in Georgia the fourteenth amendment is going to mandate that you can't enact a policy that disenfranchises the poor and elderly. So, if you were going to solve for X and Y, you'll need to have a plan that guarantees a state paid ID. I expect Georgia was too cheap for that.

For nuclear power, I am very interested in solving for X and Y. I would like to see more nuclear power. I asked what you had in mind for X and Y and it doesn't seem like a question anyone here is equipped to answer just as no one was equipped to answer what they would do to address the deficit.

Solving for X and Y does not seem to be the orientation of your tribe.

Possible values for Y include: the NRC will assert that these off the shelf designs of nuclear power plants will be presumptively considered safe. Would that help? Is the permitting process with the NRC the reason why nuclear power has stalled? I don't think so.

We could provide the same tax incentives that we provide for wind and solar. Would you support that? How would you pay for it?

We could have the Tennessee Valley Authority get into the business of building nuclear power plants. Is that what you have in mind?

What is the obstacle to nuclear power in this country and what can the federal government do to help remove it? I'm not really sure. Doesn't seem like you or neo-neocon have any idea either.

The thing is that if you had a dozen Republican congress people who told the president that they will vote for the energy bill this year if it includes these provisions for nuclear power, they could get it done.

That would be constructive. You and neo-neocon could play a constructive role if you lobbied for particular solutions for nuclear power now.

Not likely to happen is it? The culture of complaint is just too strong. But that culture is not wholesome for our country's political life.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I appreciate you going back to the well to attempt to explain yourself copithorne, and that you gave the matter some thought.

But your clarification provides nothing we didn't already know. We knew exactly what you were driving at. It is you who are not understanding us. I am at the same wall as many times before. You do not see that you do not see. What is obvious to others is somehow opaque to you. It is not a matter of explaining yourself more clearly. It is a matter of having the humility to consider that there just may be something you do not understand, for reasons of your own.

"For me the main currency of a constructive political conversation is: goverment policy is X. Goverment policy should be Y." This is simply untrue. It was not your approach when Bush was president, not about the war, the economy, or anything else I can think of. At that time you argued from first principles about general topics. You guessed at the motivations of Bush and conservatives. It is now too late to correct that. To take the stance that now that Your Guy is governing, you no longer wish to have those discussions, but only to discuss what the government should do, with reference to specific policies, is transparently a change in response to your perception that Obama has the whip hand. If you cannot see this very basic point about yourself, there is nothing that any argument will accomplish.

Secondly, for the first two examples you give, affirmative action and voter ID, you have begged the questions. As affirmative action comes up in a variety of court actions, including one that weighs heavily on the current nomination to the Supreme Court, the first principles are extremely important to discuss. You dismissively retreat to scoffing at the very idea of discussing it, because in one narrow area - private college admissions, the government has little say. As to the voter ID, you declare that the Fourteenth Amendment will require that ID's be paid for by the state, so there is no possible argument there either.

You hear an argument from your side of the aisle, state "that settles it," and are not interested in further discussion. You believe you wish to have further discussion, but you have excluded everything that doesn't fit into your narrow bounds.

I don't believe you are being manipulative in always setting the terms of any discussion only to the single point you see with shining clarity. I believe you are sincere, and that you do see these matters in terms of the one shiny bit you have in your hand. What I hope to convince you of is that to participate in a discussion, one has to be able to put oneself into the thinking of the other disputant, at least temporarily, in order to understand at all.

copithorne said...

Once again, I invited you to present policy arguments. And it just doesn't seem to be a subject that you or your friends here can marshall a response to. So, that will be a yawning gap between our understanding of what constitutes politics and what constitutes a meaningful conversation about politics.

It doesn't have to complex arguments.

The policy of the government was to torture people. We should not torture.

The policy of the government was to start wars. We should not start wars.

The policy of the government was to give tax cuts to the wealthy. We should not give tax cuts to the wealthy.

I could and did expand on any of those if they were unclear. But I was always interested in policies and outcomes. I don't think I made many comments at all speculating about motivations -- except that people were choosing their own behaviors and the outcomes associated with them. I wouldn't recognize the sensibility that people were victims of their own choices -- somebody else made me torture. Somebody else made me start a war.

I gather that Republicans will remain preoccupied with race as the primary issues of concern for them. I see the concerns you've identified as dead ends and I can tell you why. But if that is what you are concerned about, that's what you'll pursue.

But over the next year, the domestic issues we'll be dealing with will be the economy/deficit. Health Care. Energy. On the horizon will be education and immigration. If you ever develop views on what policies would be best, speak up because there will be a lot of change going on and you actually can still make a contribution.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You cannot imagine (apparently) how well you prove my point.

@nooil4pacifists said...


Thanks for looking at NOfP. I haven't followed your history of remarks here, so I can't comment on whether you're method of analysis has changed under the new Administration--though AVI's observation applies to many lefties I know.

While I agree that the issues often are less complex than some advocates presume, "simple" vanishes in the face of factual mistakes. And you've made at least two:

1) The policy of the previous Administration was not to torture. Rather, they had a half-dozen lawyers carefully analyze the relevant definitions and reach logic-supported conclusions as to the scope of the prohibition. You may disagree with the outcome. You may dispute the reasoning. But you can't miss-characterize the facts, then accuse your opponents of wallowing in tribal victimization.

2) The policy of the previous Administration was to cut taxes for all income levels. And they did--although the share of taxes paid by the rich went up, especially when comparing the top and bottom income deciles. So don't over-simplify the other side to conform to your pre-conceived image of conservatives.

Your guy won the election, so plenty of policies are going to change, in your favor. But don't presume it's because conservatives are racists who can't conduct "a meaningful conversation about politics." It's because of popular sovereignty.

Gringo said...

I don’t perceive Barack Obama as opposed to nuclear power…. What is the obstacle to nuclear power in this country and what can the federal government do to help remove it?

For starters, one obstacle to nuclear power is Obama pulling the plug on Yucca Mountain. You DO know what Yucca Mountain is about, do you not?

copithorne said...

Yeah, Carl, I go by the definition of torture used by the Red Cross, the FBI, General Petraeus and the one used throughout American history. I understand your tribe has your own private definition that works for you. From the outside that definition appears to be a rationalization.

I don't understand how your remarks qualify my own policy views that it was a mistake to cut taxes for the wealthy which was a prime factor in moving the country from a surplus of 250 billion to a deficit of 1.3 trillion.

Thanks for responding with a nuclear policy, Gringo. From my sense of safety, I would tolerate Yucca Mountain as a solution and if I were king, I would make it so. So, I agree with you and disagree with Barack Obama.

A main obstacle to nuclear power is NIMBY and I think it is hard to devise political policies that override it. It's tellling from your article that John McCain approved of Yucca Mountain but would not allow the waste to be transported through Arizona.

I still don't quite have the sense that that is the reason that nuclear power stalled in the last two decades.

But here we are, able to find agreement that cuts across partisan identification. Simply because the discussion is rooted in concrete policies.

@nooil4pacifists said...


You cannot imagine (apparently) how well you prove AVI's point.

copithorne said...

To me, AVI's point is;

How could liberals understand conservatives? They can't that's how because they are stupid and mean.

This is the tribal identification around being a victim which has become contemporary conservative politics.

I have no doubt that it is self reinforcing. I also have no doubt that it isn't going to work out as well for you guys as you think.

But as long as it is working for you now, Enjoy!

@nooil4pacifists said...

I've posted a follow-up here.